Thursday, January 22, 2009

160 - Vaeira

Before the plague of hail, Hashem commanded Moshe to add a few words of admonishment when he forewarns Pharaoh about the impending plague. "For I could have now sent out My hand and smitten you along with the [animals during the plague of] pestilence and you would have been wiped out from the earth. However, it is for this reason that I have kept you alive; so that you may behold My strength and recount [the greatness of] My name throughout the land" (Shemos 9, 15-16).
Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains the idea conveyed in these two pesukim. Chazal relate that Hashem was asked for what purpose were wicked people created. He answered, that fruit trees were created for the purpose of providing fruit and non fruit bearing trees were created to provide people with wood for building and for heat. Likewise, the righteous fulfill the Torah and their good deeds provide the world with "fruit". The wicked do not provide the world with fruit, but nevertheless, they serve another important purpose. They are agents through whom Hashem's glory is revealed to the world.
The righteous and wicked are both means of revealing Hashem's glory in the world. This is accomplished through the deeds of the righteous (their fruit) and the punishments meted out to the wicked. A person is given numerous tools (e.g. body, house, money, etc.) to serve Hashem and glorify His Name. If he uses these tools toward this objective, then he fulfills his purpose in life. However, if he decides not to use his tools toward this end, then he and everything he owns becomes a tool in the hands of Hashem to bring about the desired results - the glory of Heaven. Hence, Pharaoh was kept alive, "to behold Hashem's strength and recount His greatness throughout the land."
There were those who purported that the Third Reich would last a thousand years, but it lasted a mere eleven years - "to destroy them forever" (Tehillim 92). In contrast, the righteous, "will flourish like a date palm and will grow tall like a cedar. To show that the ways of Hashem are just" (ibid). The destruction of the wicked and the flourishing of the righteous both demonstrate that Hashem's ways are just. The difference is in the manner that it is accomplished.
We constantly decide how to use the tools given to us. Should I help my neighbor or instead read the paper? Should I give the money to tzeddaka or should I spend it on trivial things? Every situation gives us an opportunity to glorify Hashem's name and fulfill the purpose for which we were put here on earth.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

159 - Shemos

The very first time that Hashem spoke to Moshe, He revealed Himself in a burning bush. Rashi (Shemos 3, 2) explains that Hashem specifically chose to reveal Himself in a bush as opposed to a more impressive tree, because He too "feels anguish" when the Jewish People suffer. Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) comments that even when Hashem, so to speak, hides His presence from the Jewish People and allows them to suffer, nevertheless, he feels their every pain.

The Gemara in Brachos (3a) tells us that every time the Bnei Yisroel answer, "Amen. Yehei shmei raba" Hashem exclaims, "Woe unto my children for I have destroyed their Bais Hamikdosh and exiled them among the nations. Moreover, Hashem does not merely feel the suffering of the entire Jewish nation as a whole; He also feels the aches and pains of every individual. The Mishna in Sanhedrin (6, 5) states, when a person has a headache or a pain in his arm, Hashem says, "My head is heavy, My arm is heavy."

One of the basic ideas behind creation is that Hashem created this world with the desire to be connected to His creations. Being nosei be'ol - sharing people's burden - might be the most common way that Hashem connects to those living in this world. It is for this reason that being nosei be'ol is such a fundamental attribute. Because we are commanded to emulate all of Hashem's attributes, and His primary attribute is one of nesia be'ol, we must make every effort to acquire this trait. Since this is the ultimate manner of emulating Hashem, it is the most difficult middah to master.

The very first story that the Torah tells us about Moshe revolves around his nesia be'ol bechaveiro. Moshe leaves his palatial surroundings to see how his enslaved brethren are faring. Rashi tells us that he, "placed his eyes and heart [toward them] to feel their pain." He saw what was happening and then internalized it in his heart. He didn't merely say, "It must be so hard for you." He felt their pain as if it were his own. Moshe Rabbeinu, the quintessential embodiment of Hashem's attributes, personified this trait of nosei be'ol.

One can and should be nosei be'ol with every Jew in need. Whether rich or poor, healthy or ill, when one is suffering he needs someone with whom he can share his burden. As the war in Israel continues, it behooves us to take a few minutes to internalize what our brothers are feeling. Picture yourself driving toward the store and suddenly hearing an air raid siren go off.

You must jump out of your car and run for shelter within 60 seconds. You see there is no place within reach so you lie down on the sidewalk and cover your head with your hands - and pray with all your might that nothing happens. Likewise, visualize your child, close friend, or family member engaged in hand to hand combat in one of the most treacherous places in the world. He doesn't know what the next turn will bring. Let us emulate our Creator and truly empathize with them; and thereby bring ourselves and the entire world closer to perfection.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

158 - Vayechi

Just before Yaakov's passing, he tells Yosef, "I have given you Shechem as an additional portion, which I captured from the Emori with my sword and bow" (Bereishis 48, 22). Rashi offers an enigmatic explanation; "my sword and bow" refer to Yaakov's wisdom and tefillos. What is the connection between a sword and wisdom and between a bow and tefillos?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains the analogy as follows. A sword is sharp and slim and it is therefore an apt description for wisdom. Words of wisdom are clear and concise. A bow is the tool which propels the arrow to great lengths. Similarly, our mouths are the bows which propel our tefillos toward Hashem.  We do not need philosophical proofs to authenticate that there is a Creator. The very fact that we daven "into the air" and our tefillos are answered is clear-cut proof of the Omnipresent!

The Mashgiach related that he got to know a Russian convert who shared an amazing story with him. This convert recounted that when he was a student in university he was plagued by many questions and doubts with regard to religion. He was a truth seeker, and these issues bothered him to the extent that he would pray, cry and fast, with the hope of unraveling these mysteries. At some point, he fell asleep during one of his tearful prayers. In his dream the answers to his many questions were revealed to him. This was the impetus for his eventual conversion to Judaism. Tefillah has the quality of an arrow: a true prayer hits its mark and is answered.

Yaakov Avinu felt that the victory in his war against the people of Shechem was due to his Torah study and his tefillos. Yes, he had to pick up a sword and fight (see third Rashi ibid.), but the ultimate determinant as to who would win the war lay in the hands of those who prayed. At the present time, when many of our brothers in Israel are under fire and others are putting their lives on the line fighting in enemy territory, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to make use of the "ammunition" in our possession. If the situation bothers us as it should, we will make a point of davening in a manner that will give our tefillos the potency of an arrow, thereby protecting our brethren and ensuring a victory for our soldiers on the battlefront.

157 - Vayigash

When Yosef revealed his true identity to his brothers, the Torah tells us, "And his brothers could not answer him because they were astounded" (Bereishis 45, 3). Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains the reason for their astonishment. At that moment, they were able to comprehend everything that had occurred in the past twenty two years.

What happened to their brother that they had sold so many years earlier? Why was the viceroy in Egypt dealing with them so harshly? Why was the money they had spent on their food returned to them? Why was the viceroy so adamant that Binyomin be brought to Egypt? What was the viceroy's goblet doing in Binyomin's sack? Yosef's revelation dispelled all the mysteries. All their questions were answered with a few revealing words - "I am Yosef" because they now saw the entire picture with total clarity:

The brother they had sold into slavery was the very viceroy standing before them. It was for that reason that he was dealing so harshly with them. He wanted to be sure that they had done complete teshuva and would not repeat their mistake once again. The goblet was placed in Binyomin's sack as the ultimate test: Would they abandon Binyomin in Egypt just as they had shown no concern for Yosef's life so many years earlier, or would they stand by him in his time of need? The brothers withstood the test and merited to see the entire picture that was shrouded behind a bizarre sequence of events. Immediately everything became crystal clear.

Rav Wolbe quotes Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, who described the coming of Moshiach in similar terms. When Moshiach arrives, and Hashem will proclaim, "I am Hashem", everything will become crystal clear. At once, all the questions that people had will be answered: Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the meaning behind the financial meltdown? Why are we continuosly being attacked by our enemies? When Moshiach comes, these and all other questions will be answered. We will be able to view the entire picture at once. We will then understand that the very things that we thought to be detrimental were in reality the source of our redemption. 

156 - Mikeitz

Rav Wolbe related that at one point his Yeshiva was going through a very difficult time and he went to the Chazon Ish for some sagacious advice. The Chazon Ish told him that one has to jump into the sea and walk until the water is up to his neck and then the sea will split. In other words, man must do all in his capacity if he wishes to merit siyata dishmaya - Heavenly help. Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) explains that this is so because if one doesn't use the full extent of his ability, how can he expect to receive Heavenly help which is beyond his ability? This concept is manifested in a number of places in the Torah.

In this past week's parsha, Potiphar's wife unrelentingly tries to seduce Yosef. On one fateful day when no one was home besides Yosef, Potiphar's wife makes another attempt. According to one opinion in Chazal, Yosef was ready to capitulate, and just at that moment his father's image appeared to him and warned of the dire consequences should he sin. If at that moment Yosef had not been on the spiritual level to merit such a revelation, he wouldn't have merited it. It was only because up until this time he had done everything within his ability to prevent himself from sinning that he merited Heavenly help in the form of his father's image. (For this reason, one cannot say, "Had my father appeared to me before I sinned, I also would have refrained." Had he resisted temptation as Yosef did, he too, would have merited that his father's image appear before him!)

Another such example (as alluded to by the Chazon Ish) is the splitting of the sea when the Jews were pursued by the Egyptians. Chazal tell us that Nachshon jumped into the sea and walked until the water reached his nostrils, and only then did the water split. He walked until he could walk no more and thus merited the siyata dishmaya needed to split the sea.

This concept is in essence the message of Chanukka. The Ba"ch writes that the kohanim were lax in their performance of the avodah in the Beis Hamikdosh and measure for measure the Greeks issued an edict that forbade the avodah - offering sacrifices and lighting the menorah. Moreover, they defiled all the oil that was to be used for the menorah. Only after the Chashmonaim showed that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of reclaiming the avodah in the Beis Hamikdosh, did they merit Heavenly help in this area - a handful of kohanim defeated a mighty army, they were able to reenter the Beis Hamikdosh where they found a single flask of oil intact, and a day's worth of oil miraculously burned for eight days. Therefore, Chazal established these days of Chanukka as days of "praise and thanks to Hashem" i.e. strengthening our avodah.

Pesach revolves around yetzias Mitzrayim, Shavuos around Matan Torah, Rosh Hashana around yir'ah, Yom Kippur aroundpurity, Succos around simchah, and Chanukka revolves around chizuk - strengthening our avodah. Hence, it is he, who in honor of Chanukka, learns with vigor during the time he has set aside for Torah, or davens a tefillah with an added emphasis on concentration, who has lit the true flame of Chanukka.